Biden came to office aiming to focus his foreign policy on the needs of the US middle class. Ending the pandemic, rejuvenating the nation, addressing climate change and competing with China were top priorities. Russia was not. After an initial series of measures designed to punish Vladimir Putin for his chemical-weapons attack on Alexei Navalny, cyber-espionage, and meddling in US domestic politics, policymakers opted to pursue stability and predictability in the US-Russia relationship.
The crisis over Ukraine now threatens to derail this aim and distract from Biden’s broader agenda. It would be tragic if, after having been through the painful process of withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration is now pulled deeper into the crisis over Ukraine.
But the risks are growing by the day. Biden has so far taken a balanced approach that combines active diplomacy with a threat of sanctions and support to Ukraine if Russia invades. A formidable cast of hawkish critics – from DC thinktanks and Washington Post columnists to former members of the National Security Council and national intelligence directors – however, find this approach too soft and are charging the president with appeasement. They want the United States to get more involved, including militarily, in hope of deterring a Russian invasion. The very limited results of last week’s talks, combined with the cyber-attack on the Ukrainian government websites and news of possible Russian preparations for a false flag operation in Ukraine all intensify the pressure.
Frustration and anger in the face of Putin’s frank disregard for human life is natural and healthy. A war in Ukraine would also erode international law and norms that favor the peaceful resolution of conflicts, with negative repercussions for the United States. But it’s wrong to make the Ukraine crisis into a totemic issue for the whole international order.
With tensions already so high, accelerating the deployment of anti-aircraft, anti-armor, or other weapons to Ukraine has more of a chance of hastening Putin’s march toward war then slowing him down. For such deployments to be effective, they would probably need to be accompanied by US military advisers, greatly increasing the risk of direct US-Russia conflict. Ukraine deserves western support, but we shouldn’t forget that isn’t a Nato member.
Instead of trying to deter Putin with military measures, the United States should make every effort to keep last week’s diplomacy going. The current negotiating agenda focuses on a follow-on to the moribund treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and resurrection of elements of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. While desirable, these alone are almost certainly not enough to keep Russia in the talks.
In truth, it’s hard to say what will, but every diplomatic option needs to be on the table to forestall a Russian invasion. Russia’s insistence that Nato formally close its door to all future enlargement is unrealistic, but so are any hopes that Ukraine might someday join the alliance. Staunch resistance of several allies and Ukraine’s internal obstacles to meeting the requirements make this undeniable. Biden should be ready to signal to Putin that he is willing to explore creative solutions that would acknowledge these realities. It would be an extraordinary irony if Ukraine were to lose its independence as a state over the unfillable principle that it has the right to join an alliance that does not really want it.
Any inkling of diplomatic accommodation of Russian demands of course risks bringing a firestorm of domestic and foreign criticism down on the president. High-level diplomacy with the Russian autocrat is especially hard given the way the Democrats attacked Trump for his embrace of Putin, a man Biden once called “a killer”. Then there is the risk that Putin rebuffs the offer publicly and invades anyway, leaving the Administration hanging in the wind and seemingly lending weight to the charges of appeasement.
But if diplomacy fails, Russia will soon invade, and everyone will lose except perhaps Presidents Putin and Xi. Faced with an invasion, Biden would have no alternative but to act on his threats, sanctioning Russia, and providing assistance to Ukraine. Over time, Nato nations would be forced to spend more on defense, including for land-based military capabilities with little relevance to strategic competition with China. China and Russia would draw closer together, accelerating a troubling trend toward the hardening of geopolitical fault lines, circumstances that recall the run-up to the first world war, and which Biden has expressly said he wants to avoid. None of this would be helpful to Biden’s aim of serving the needs of the American middle class.